Seven Things To Tell Young Black South Africans

Being Black in South Africa today must be a baffling, sometimes humiliating experience.

Image Credit: Antoinette Engel.

Last week, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation held an election debate in Cape Town, in the Western Cape, on intergenerational justice. It would have been great if some terms, like intergenerational justice, had been framed more definitively beforehand. I imagine many people take the term to be a call for a moderation of economic demands on, for example, natural and other resources in this generation so that future generations might also enjoy their benefits.

However, the economic reality is that future generations do not spring forth from the aether, with no connection to the current generation. Parents bequeath their socioeconomic positions to their children, despite the many ubiquitous, grand and oversold tales of a universally available social mobility predicated on “hard work” and “equal opportunity”. And if there is to be intergenerational justice in South Africa, one based on the truism that justice delayed is justice denied, then the present-day racial inequalities—a direct result of centuries of imperialist, colonialist and apartheid policies and actions—will have to be dealt with swiftly, definitively and with a singularity of purpose in this generation’s lifetime.

Alas, this wasn’t the debate that unfolded on the night. Most of the represented political parties—the ANC, the national incumbent; the DA, the party in government in the Western Cape; and two new unrepresented parties, EFF and Agang—ignored the topic and delivered campaign speeches.

The institute had also invited students from Phillippi High School and Cape Academy, two differently resourced schools for poorer Black students, mostly. At question and answer time, the students seemed to have a firmer grasp than some of the politicians of the present state of injustice into which they were born. They asked about gangsterism on the Cape Flats; being made attend school in buildings not made of brick and mortar; and what it means to be Black in South Africa today.

They seemed perplexed that these were still issues present in their lives, two decades after the supposed start of freedom’s reign.

I wasn’t the only one in the audience to realize that they lacked the words and historical context with which to speak to the interrelatedness of their socioeconomic positions and their blackness. And it wasn’t the first time I’d come across this.

Without these words and context, being Black in South Africa today must be a baffling, sometimes humiliating experience.

With that in mind, I drew up a non-exhaustive list of seven Black consciousness themed conversations I will have with my three-year-old nephew and two-year-old niece (and any young person who will listen), so they might cope with being Black in modern-day South Africa. These are the bare-minimum educational conversations we should all be having with young Black South Africans:

1. Apartheid, in substance, was an economic system that took legal form through segregationist policies and disenfranchising Black people. The legal form was abolished in 1994, but the economic system remains. Any reference to apartheid’s “legacy” is speaking about the system proper.

2. Apartheid was the final, all-encompassing consolidation of the white-supremacist economic project that began with the initial Dutch settlement in the Cape.

3. The separation of the colonialist era from the apartheid era is artificial, as is the separation of the “post-apartheid” era from both. History cannot be sealed off from the present through watershed moments, no matter how appealing their emotive value. History is not something that can simply be “moved on” from, not without a radical and massive correction of historical injustices; something that did not happen in this country. Even with such a correction, history is always the lens through which to understand the present.

4. You aren’t poor because you are Black. There is nothing about the tone of your skin, the texture of your hair or the languages and cultural practices of your mothers that makes you innately suitable for lives of servitude. You are poor because it was economically expedient for a group of white men whose interests in empire building and wealth accumulation trumped any notion of justice or commitment to democratic values they might have had.

5. You aren’t poor because you are Black. You are poor because the economic reality is that you inherited the socioeconomic position of your parents, which was crafted by this imperialist colonialist economic project steeped in white supremacy.

6. You aren’t poor because you are Black. You are poor because the intransigence of whiteness meant the people’s movement acting to liberate you from this white-supremacist tyranny was, under threat of war, made to delay the justice to which you are entitled and to offer it to your generation piecemeal. This was always going to be a long, if not impossible, task owing to the nature of the global economy into which this country has locked itself. This is why many of your generation were born into an unjust society and will die in an unjust society.

7. The older generation (and the movements and structures they founded) no longer has the appetite to fight for the justice you deserve. You have to fight for it, and you have to convince others around you of these incontrovertible truths.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.